Reflecting on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

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On the 28th January 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lifting off. On board were mission commander Francis Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, and mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Reznik and Ronald McNair, as well as engineer Gregory Jarvis and, in an unusual and publicly prominent position, a teacher – Christa McAuliffe. All of whom were killed.

The mission itself was somewhat uninspiring. After launch, the crew were to deploy a satellite that enabled better communication with orbiting craft and then to study the passage of Halley’s comet as it passed the Sun. The relative tedium of the mission was counteracted by the personalities of the crew and in particular, that of McAuliffe. She had won a government-sponsored competition proposed by the Reagan Administration named Teacher In Space which aimed to give young people something to aspire towards. If this mission went well, thousands of school children could hope to follow in McAuliffe’s footsteps and work towards careers in space exploration and science. Consequently, many schools showed the launch of Challenger live in classrooms.

It seriously undermines the credibility and esteem of science if [accidents] happen only after significant warning

Due to bad weather, the launch was postponed to the 28th. On that day, the temperature at the Kennedy Space Centre, was a record low — forecast for -3°C at the launch of 9:38am. Engineers had voiced concerns that the low temperature could cause issues with the O shaped seals of the rocket and yet the leadership of the consulting engineering firm approved the launch anyway. The decision proved fatal. As famously demonstrated in the inquiry by the physicist Richard Feynman, the low temperature caused the O-rings to become brittle and they could not effectively seal around the necessary parts, leading to catastrophic malfunctions and the subsequent explosion.

36 years on, the Challenger disaster remains in the societal memory and indicates, more than anything, the need for stringent health and safety checks, and also the necessity for executives to take the concerns of their employees seriously. Accidents will continue to happen, but it seriously undermines the credibility and esteem of science if they happen only after significant warning bells are sounded.

Image: NASA via Unsplash

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